Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: Brother John by August Turak

I imagined dedicating my life to others, to self-transcendence, without ever finding that inner spark of eternity that so obviously made Brother John's life the easiest and most natural life I had ever known. Perhaps his peace and effortless love were not available to all, but only to some. Perhaps I just didn't have what it takes. - August Turak, Brother John

When it comes down to it, this book is a story about a monk with an umbrella.

Certain other monastic figures are lionized, even canonized, because their lives have been made so outsized. This may be due to their extensive writing (Thomas Merton) or their treasured wisdom (Richard Rohr) or the impressiveness of their embodied devotion (St. Francis). People of faith pay attention to and draw inspiration from these few, perhaps in part because we can't imagine leading the life that they did or do: who among us but a select portion could envision a cloistered life of a regular prayer and work schedule, with limited contact with the outer world?

The ones I've mentioned, of course, transcended that contact. That is why we know them. But we forget the hundreds or thousands who go about their days in quiet service, never publishing books or starting their own movements. They rise each day, called by the bells to prayer, or to meals, or to chores, or to assist guests on retreat, and they are content to do that without the added attention that some have drawn for various reasons.

Brother John by August Turak is the story of one such monk. Turak meets him while attending a time of retreat at a Cistercian monastery called Mepkin. After the evening Christmas Eve Mass and subsequent party, Brother John greets him with an umbrella, ready to walk him back to his room.

This small and seemingly insignificant act of service is enough to inspire Turak to reflection. Brother John is apparently a notable figure at his monastery simply because he goes about his duties so faithfully. He changes light bulbs, he pitches in when others are short-handed. He's just living his life, but these small, quiet actions catch Turak's notice enough to wonder at how he himself may serve in his own way and in his own life.

What does a life of unheralded and deep faith look like if it isn't one like Brother John's? This seems to be the question at the heart of Turak's story. It isn't very long. It's a few hundred words, less than 50 pages in length, accompanied by beautiful painted illustrations. But the reflection it may cause in the reader has the potential to last much longer and delve much deeper.

All this because of a monk with an umbrella. Which, if you think about it, is all one may need.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Book Review: Naming the Unnameable by Matthew Fox

Which, among the trillions upon trillions of God-names might serve us the best today? And serve the planet the best? And therefore serve God the best? That is the question that this book is presenting. Hopefully, it will be useful, for as Aquinas insisted, a "little knowledge about important things is far more important than a lot of knowledge about unimportant things." A fresh understanding and language about Divinity may assist us to come up with fresh understandings of ourselves and thus the societies and institutions we feel called to give birth to as we struggle to assist other species to survive and to survive ourselves, to be sustainable, even to thrive and become beautiful and worthy of our holy existence. - Matthew Fox, Naming the Unnameable

I have been a fan of Michigan football my entire life. For most of that span, I've enjoyed watching a successful team run onto the field and power past opponent after opponent, although there were some rough years in 2008 through 2014. 2013 and 2014 were notably poor, with the offensive side of the ball often unclear about who it wanted to be and what it wanted to do. Every week during those years, it seemed, the team would show an approach vastly different from the previous one, without much consistency or identity.

A favorite Michigan blogger and podcaster of mine, Brian Cook, occasionally referred to this offensive philosophy (or lack thereof) as "The Cheesecake Factory offense." He would explain this phrase by saying, "it's not very good, but there's a lot of it."

This metaphor came to mind as I read through Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God...Including the Unnameable God by Matthew Fox. Fox's aim in this short volume, tipped off by the subtitle and further explained in the introduction, is to present a variety of "names" that have been or could be used for God.

I place "names" in quotes, because many of these work better as descriptors of how God works in the world or of how one may experience God, to be differentiated from proper titles that faith traditions use and recognize as part of their formal tenets. Only a few of the latter actually make it into the book: Holy Spirit, Mother, Father, Goddess, Kali, Trinity, Holy One, Christ. That's 8 out of 89.

The other 81 could be broken down into several categories. The largest, perhaps, are the descriptors I mentioned earlier. Fox explores concepts of God such as Ground of Being, Cause of Wonder, Within of Things, Power of Creation, Destroyer of Darkness and Evil, and so on. Many of these are lifted out of the writing of thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Deepak Chopra. Some of these may be familiar to readers already, and it may be that those already familiar with a faith tradition may nod along in agreement.

Another category for some of these "names" may be called those that flatten tradition. These are "names" that hold a nuanced role in a faith and that often are not used to name or describe God, but Fox has lifted out of their role for his own purposes. These include Mary, Kingdom of God, Lady of Guadalupe, Black Madonna, and Gaia. These figures or terms operate within certain traditions in a particular way not meant to be equated with God Godself. They may be people or concepts through which God is experienced, but still distinct from the Divine.

Finally, I may categorize a portion of these "names" in life experiences. Fox lists Love, Goodness, Laughter, Music, our Aspirations, Beauty, Truth, and Wisdom. I would not deny that these are all things that emanate from God as gifts to be used, enjoyed, and learned from, as well as conduits through which we experience God's presence. However, as with the previous category, I would not equate these things with God.

Most of these entries are a page or two long at most, with great potential to flesh out what Fox means by listing each of them. They may be that short because this is meant to be an introduction to invite further exploration on the part of the reader. However, given the equivalencies that he makes and the flattening of tradition that he undertakes, I'd almost call this approach irresponsible, if not also disrespectful to the traditions he borrows from.

That is why the Cheesecake Factory metaphor came to mind as I read. Fox here has tried to undertake a project with too little explanation for much of what he presents. I understand that he wants to show that there are a variety of ways one may relate to or experience God, but there isn't enough follow-up with much of what he shares to really stoke the imagination.

In other words, this isn't very good, but there's a lot of it.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Advent Candle Liturgies

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of liturgies for lighting the Advent wreath each Sunday of Advent, plus one for Christmas Eve.

They were well-received when I originally posted them, and with the season coming up in just a few more weeks, it seemed like a good time to share them again in case you are a pastor or worship leader still putting together your order of service.

These could also be adapted for personal devotional use.

The First Candle: Hope
The Second Candle: Peace
The Third Candle: Joy
The Fourth Candle: Love
The Christ Candle

May your preparations for the season to come be Spirit-filled.

(Image source)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Vintage CC: Fandom and Faith

In honor of the regular college football season wrapping up in the next few weeks, I decided to revisit this post from September 2015. My past self who wrote this would be pleased to hear what has developed with his team, especially this season (although I'd hold off on traveling back to tell him until I see how the last Game turns out). 

I get excited about the fall months for many reasons, among them being the return of college football. I've been especially excited for what Jim Harbaugh will bring to my favorite team, the Michigan Wolverines, after a decade of futility.

Leading up to the season, I thought a little about the parallels between sports fandom and a life of faith. You'd be surprised how often I'm able to find such parallels, actually. The way I see it, there are different ways of being a fan, as there are different ways of approaching how one believes and lives as a Christian. I shared some of this in a sermon not too long ago, but thought I'd flesh it out a little more here.

Here, then, are some of the ways one approaches being a sports fan and its faith equivalent.

Unquestioned loyalty - This is perhaps the most typical, or at least the ones most prominent in public settings. This sort of fan allows his or her favorite team largely to dictate decision-making and relationships. Events big and small are scheduled around game times. Scores get checked in the middle of weddings. Friendships and business relationships may end or at least be made very tentative if someone roots for the big rival: case in point, I once was told by a grown adult in complete seriousness that they weren't going to be my friend any more because I root for a rival team. If a player or coach has an off-the-field issue, it can be completely explained away and everyone else is taking what happened out of context. My team can do no wrong...ever.

What the faith version looks like: This type of faith dictates decision-making and relationships as well, but perhaps with a judgmental edge. Friendships and business relationships may also hinge on whether someone is a fellow believer, and even if one is a fellow Christian certain doctrinal beliefs will need to be similar enough. Everything the Bible says including the parts about genocide and slavery can be completely explained and the one looking for an issue just isn't reading it right. Likewise, much of what Christians have done over the centuries in the name of Jesus can be explained according to contextual knowledge of the era. There are degrees to this as with everything else, but the basic philosophy of unquestioned loyalty in any part of life is you don't ask questions.

Vague support or interest - This type of fandom basically says, "Well, I live in this region of the country, so sure, I guess I root for these people." Largely, this type of fan has other things to do, but they own a few items of apparel with the area team's logo on them. Interest heightens when they make the playoffs, but otherwise they'll catch a few games on TV and go about their life generally aware of the team's existence.

What the faith version looks like: "Well, my parents attend this church and I'm not Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu, so sure, I guess I'm a Christian." This person prefers Sunday brunch or grocery shopping, but they'll make a few services a year. Interest heightens around Christmas and Easter, but otherwise they'll attend every once in a while. Aside from being part of a formal faith gathering, maybe they like Jesus as a teacher or really do think he somehow reveals God, but what does that really have to do with me outside of my trying to just be a good person?

Outright rejection or apathy - This type of fan--or, really, non-fan--doesn't see the point in following sports. Some sports are incredibly violent and most are regularly plagued by scandal and corruption, or they see the way sports of all things can divide people, and they don't want to be associated with that in any fashion. They see nothing exciting or life-giving about sports and would rather pour their time and energy into literally anything else.

What the faith version looks like: Christian faith has been used for an incredible amount of violence, discrimination, and oppression since it began. Some high-profile Christian figures have been plagued by scandal and corruption, and many don't seem to practice what they preach. They see how religion of any kind can be divisive rather than uniting or loving. An increasing number of people see this and look elsewhere for spiritual growth, if they think it's important at all.

Mellow realism - This type of fan perhaps used to be an unquestioning loyalist, but then he or she had to live through some down years for their team. Whether this came in the form of losing seasons, regular controversies on or off the field, or a combination, this type of fan has learned to see his or her team in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They're able to recognize the bad while celebrating the good, shrug off differences in fandom in relationships, and while certain losses will still sting, they're able to move on more easily than others might.

What the faith version looks like: This person has been through some things. They've seen struggles and loss of various kinds. They know God is in there somewhere and are actively searching, but have long ago rejected the idea that God causes suffering for some unknown, sovereign reason. They've learned to see faith in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They balance scriptural claims, creeds, and doctrines with life experience and reason.

The relationships among these different sorts of fans could be explored as well. The unquestioned loyalist can find the mellow realist an annoying killjoy or might question their dedication: "you say you're a fan, but you aren't toeing the team's line the way you should." Likewise, the mellow realist can't understand how the unquestioned loyalist can be so willfully blind to certain flaws in what their team is doing: "why can't you just admit that our winning coach did something wrong?" Both might roll their eyes at the vague supporter: "you only show up during the special times." The rejector is still wondering why the other three even bother, and the unquestioned loyalist and mellow realist may try to psychoanalyze the rejector: "you must be hurt or mad at the team's owner for some reason. But there really is good in sports! You just have to see it!"

Hopefully you can see the parallels between fandom and faith in these relationships. I don't think I need to spell them out. As mentioned, there are other degrees of fandom, and degrees within degrees, as there are in one's approach to or commitment to any particular faith tradition. Each has positives and negatives; reasons for existing and also growing edges.

Where might you fall?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Three Reasons Not to Sit Still While Praying

If you've ever picked up a book about prayer or attended a spiritual retreat or workshop, most of them tend to prescribe the same method.

Find a quiet place. Sit still. Assume a position that will be comfortable for you (that is, that you'll be able to remain in for a while). Center your breathing to calm yourself. Usually at some point while this method is described, a line from Psalm 46 is quoted: "Be still and know that I am God."

I love this general style of prayer. When I myself am able to find the time to observe it, it helps take me away from the busyness of my days and helps me refocus on God's presence. But I confess that I don't always make time to do this, because that busyness can be so distracting and exhausting that by the time I do have a free moment, I'd rather just wind down on my couch with a TV show or book for a little while before going to bed.

If my anecdotal experience as a pastor is any indication, I am far from the only one. I hear quite often about how strained people's schedules and energy are, and making time to add spiritual practices to those obligations add stress rather than remove it.

That's why I wrote Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times. This style of prayer that many of us are encouraged to do just doesn't fit our lives very well. We should certainly find time to rest and be still and take time away from our hectic days, but there are other ways to pray besides "be still and know," and many need to discover such ways because it's the only way they're ever going to be able to do so.

So, why not sit still while praying? I can give at least three reasons, all discussed at length in my book:

1. Prayer can seem like another to-do list item. Your typical day might start before the sun comes up. It might feature getting the kids ready for school, getting ready for work, commuting, maybe sneaking in a workout over your lunch break, getting home to meet the kids getting off the bus, shoving dinner down everyone's throats before heading to evening practices or meetings, and then bedtime routines.

A prayer practice in the midst of all that could probably only be taken up earlier in the morning or after everyone else is in bed, but the mere thought of doing that might make you tired and resentful before you even begin. Prayer shouldn't inspire such emotions and attitudes; if it does, you'll likely give up on it pretty quickly, or cause you to quit before you even start.

2. Not everyone can sit still. Studies of how the mind operates have found that when we're sitting still for long periods of time, even while working on a task, there's a part of the brain that becomes bored. It's why trinkets like fidget cubes have become so popular in recent years: having something for your free hand to mess with while you're reading, studying, or doing something else that requires you sitting in the same spot for a while keeps that part of your brain engaged. Sitting still without such aids may cause you to become restless and distracted.

Some people, including many devoted to prayer, have found ways to overcome such fidgety tendencies in order to be faithful to that model of praying that encourages stillness. But not everyone may be able to. There are ways to pray while fidgeting instead.

3. God is in the moving and noise as much as the stillness and silence. This is the big one that encompasses the others. The Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence figured this out when he wrote about finding God's presence in sweeping the floor and doing the dishes in his monastery as much as when he was receiving the Eucharist. God is with us while we're trying to keep up with our schedules as much as when we're finally at a pause in them long enough to pray.

As helpful as "be still and know" has been and is for many people, there is just as much value in tapping into an awareness of God's presence in the rush and responsibility of our lives, because God is as concerned and involved in our parenting, commuting, exercising, and working as in whatever worship, prayer, or retreat that we're able to observe.

You have permission not to sit still while praying. There are other ways that account for busy lives and active personalities.

Among other ways of discovering them, you can read more in Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group

My senior high youth group was bright, engaged, eager to share opinions, and compassionate.
I still carry those days with me as my entrance into Christian discipleship: the informal yet passionate conversation mixed with opportunities to participate in service projects were my first, lasting taste of what it means to be part of the church.
I believe that many others who have been a part of youth groups could say similar things. But after graduation, that energy disappears and something else takes its place.
After years of talking about the issues of the day from worn, plaid chairs, we’re encouraged to sit around a committee table and help figure out how much fruit salad to order for an upcoming dinner.
After years of embarking on service trips, we’re told that there’s only so much time and money to devote to adults doing such things (and the kids have to raise their own funds for that, anyway).
After years of guitar-accompanied songs around campfires and concerts attended, we’re told to sit still in wooden seats to sing hymns played a beat too slow on an instrument we’ve only seen in our grandmother’s living room.
What many were taught to expect from the church in youth group is not what they find once they reach adulthood. Something of the dynamism; the sense that spiritual exploration is an adventure; the excitement of a call to go forth and help those who look, act, or believe differently from us is left behind on the youth room foosball table.
If—and this “if” gets bigger every year—our youth return to the church after they graduate high school, the church would do well to consider its demand for younger generations to conform to something wholly different from what they’ve been immersed in.
What happened to those lively discussions about something besides fruit salad?
Where are those chances to follow Jesus by helping others outside the sanctuary walls?
Where’s the passion and diversity in worship?
And most importantly, where is the living and active Spirit of God who once seemed so evident in the youth room, the soup kitchen, and the fire pit sing-along?
“Well, of course it’s still there,” the objection will come. “It’s just not the same.”
And to many, that difference is the problem.
(Originally posted at New Sacred. Image via pxhere)